Forget the mayoral race, it’s Toronto’s council races that will determine the shape of our city

May 3, 2018

By Matt Elliott

For all the talk of visions and long-term plans and catchy slogans, the two prominent buttons on the council chamber desk of every city councillor – one green, and one red – are what really shape the future of our city. These buttons determine everything.

Why, for instance, is the city rebuilding the eastern section of the Gardiner Expressway when it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars (reports say more than a billion) more than alternatives presented to council earlier this term? It’s not because of compelling reports or the wisdom of experts. Not really. It’s because two councillors pressed a button in favour of that decision.

Had two of the city councillors in attendance during the Gardiner debate in June 2015 – seriously, just two – pushed the other button and voted the other way, the city would be on an altogether different road.

But of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, Mayor John Tory led council to vote 24-21 to keep the expressway.

A two-vote margin. If two measly votes had gone the other way, the result would have been 23-22 in favour of removing the highway.

With Toronto’s government structure, it’s not about the bulleted lists of promises included in mayoral platforms. It’s about electing coalitions of people that represent enough votes to win on the issues you care about.

It’s worth thinking about that tiny two-vote difference and what could have otherwise been this week, as Toronto’s municipal election season officially kicks off. Even if Tory doesn’t face a high-profile challenger to the mayor’s office, Toronto’s weak mayor system — where council, not the mayor, calls the shots — means there’s a hell of a lot at stake.

The mayor is ultimately just one vote, after all. With new and expanded ward boundaries creating three new seats, there are 47 other city hall elections taking place this year, in addition to the mayoral race. And the winners of those elections will be responsible for voting on hundreds of items.

Just a few different button pushes over the last four years could have changed the long-term direction of this city. Billions of dollars could have been devoted to other things. People’s lives could have been different – maybe better.

As an example, consider this: had just five councillors in attendance voted differently – or been different people altogether – Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s motion in December to request use of the federally managed armouries as shelter space for the city’s homeless population would have passed. The armouries could have (with federal approval) opened before it got bitterly cold out.

Five changed votes and maybe someone out in the cold finds a warm place to sleep.

Similarly, six council votes made the difference in the city’s decision to keep pursuing the ever-more-expensive Scarborough subway project. Four votes made the difference in council’s decision to stop pursuing ranked ballots as a form of electoral reform. Nine votes ensured that council stuck to Tory’s desire to keep residential property taxes below inflation. One vote – one damned vote – meant that industrial companies continue to get subsidies covering some of the cost of the wastewater they produce.

Toronto’s municipal election needs to be thought about in these terms. With Toronto’s government structure, it’s not about the bulleted lists of promises included in mayoral platforms. It’s about electing coalitions of people that represent enough votes to win on the issues you care about.  

To that end, the apparent lack of a high-profile challenger to Tory could be a good thing. Without a showy mayoral race sucking up all the oxygen in the city, Toronto voters have an opportunity this year to focus more on the council races that will actually make the difference.

The opportunity is huge. Those new ward boundaries have created several vacant seats, and the number of vacancies could be further bolstered by councillors attempting to win jobs at Queen’s Park — if they win. Additional momentum could come from advocacy groups who are preparing to put resources toward defeating some of council’s most notorious incumbents.

If, for example, four or five new progressive-minded councillors are elected, a bunch of city-building initiatives that seemed just out of reach during this term of council could suddenly become attainable. But conversely, if some or all of these vacant seats are filled by politicians who like the sound of the mayor’s pledge to keep property taxes at or below the rate of inflation, then, well, the next four years will probably look a lot like the past four. Forget it, Jake, it’s Tory Town.

Don’t sleep on this election. In its own sneaky way, with new boundaries, three new wards and extra attention on council seat races, it might be the most critical since amalgamation. Take the time to figure out who is running to be your councillor. And when you talk to them, don’t let them get away with handing you platitudes about their folksy hardscrabble roots or passion for volunteering. Instead, ask them how they’ll vote.

Remember the stakes, the votes, the implications. Remember the buttons. One green. One red. In the margins: one city’s future.

Matt Elliott is a columnist, blogger and City Hall watcher in Toronto. After starting out as an independent blogger, he later became the city columnist for Metro News. He mostly writes about local issues, often with a nerdy focus on municipal budgets and urban policy. The winner of two Canadian Online Publishing Awards for his writing, the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale has called Matt “one of the best political columnists anywhere.” You can follow Matt on Twitter at @GraphicMatt.